Civil rights groups alarmed at court ruling against Google

A Belgian court finds that Google News breaches copyright

European lobby groups have expressed alarm at a Belgian court's ruling that Google News violates copyright rules.

In 2007, courts found that Copiepresse, which represents French and German language newspapers in Belgium, was the victim of copyright infringements by Google. Google duly removed Copiepresse content from its index and launched an appeal at a high court. Last Thursday, that court found against Google's appeal to the distress of many lobby groups.

"The ruling sets a dangerous precedent by a restrictive interpretation of the copyright exceptions regime. Exceptions to, and limitations on, right holders' exclusive rights are an important mechanism for balanced copyright law. This ruling sets these E.U. aims back and significantly restricts Internet users," said European consumer rights group, BEUC.

"This is a perfect example of European legislation that seems almost designed to undermine innovation and access to copyrighted material in the European Union. There is simply no harm to the publishers from Google driving traffic to their sites using short quotes from their articles. There is, however, a cost to European innovators faced with unpredictable and unreasonable laws that lead to such judgments," added Joe McNamee of European digital rights group EDRi.

BEUC claims that the ruling could open the door for other newspaper publishers to make similar claims, however as a ruling in a civil court doesn't create a legal precedent, the main worry is the message it sends to E.U. legislators ahead of the European Commission proposals to be announced next week on updating the E.U.'s Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive.

Google, which sends 4 billion clicks a year to publishers' sites, is extremely disappointed in the decision. The search giant pointed out that publishers have a range of options allowing them to limit or opt out of listing on Google News. "We disagree with today's decision, as we believe Google News to be fully compliant with copyright law. We will review the decision to decide our next course of action. We believe that referencing information with short headlines and direct links to the source -- as it is practiced by search engines, Google News and just about everyone on the Web -- is not only legal but also encourages web users to read newspapers online. We remain committed to collaborating further with publishers to explore new ways for them to make money from online news."

The Copiepresse case however, is not typical of newspapers' relationships with online search engines. More and more print newspapers are turning to online publishing and value listings and re-direction. It is notable that Copiepresse member, L'Echo, a French-language daily paper, was specifically not included in the court case against Google after it asked the search engine to include it in Google News listings.

Copiepresse has a separate suit pending for damages for the period in which its content was visible on Google News although Google News does not earn advertising revenue. The ruling is therefore a huge blow to Google, but fears that it will establish a precedent are probably unfounded.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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